Campus News

Published by Communications and Public Affairs (519) 824-4120, Ext. 56982 or 53338

News Release

December 18, 1998

Kids fighting? Reaction depends on whether you are Mom or Dad

When it comes to dealing with squabbling children, a parent's gender plays a major role, research by a University of Guelph professor reveals.
In studies of Ontario families, Professor Susan Lollis found that mothers rely more on "care" tactics when handling sibling conflicts, such as asking children to take one another's feelings into account, share and find mutually satisfying solutions. Fathers tend to rely on "justice" tactics, such as who owns an object or who had it first. It does not matter whether the child is a boy or girl.

"Although the child's gender does not determine a parent's inclination for justice or care orientation, the parents' gender did," said Lollis, from the Department of Family Relations. "It is interesting what lessons we can learn from the fights our children are having in the home."

Lollis, along with colleague Hildy Ross from the University of Waterloo and graduate student Betty Brouwer, studied 40 families in the Guelph-Kitchener-Waterloo region over a two-year period. The research was supported by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. The families comprised both parents and two children. Six 90-minute observation sessions were held when the children were 2 and 4 years old and again when they were 4 and 6 years old. The parents were between the ages of 23 and 48.

Overall, with the 2-year-old and 4-year-old siblings, mothers intervened in their children's squabbles more often than fathers, and they tended to exercise "care" tactics twice as often as they relied on "justice" tactics. Fathers, on the other hand, relied on justice most of the time. "Mothers' focus on care and fathers' focus on justice were found for both older and younger children and for both boys and girls," Lollis said.

The researchers were interested in studying how families deal with conflict and how children learn to care for one another and other people. Lollis came up with the idea after watching her own children bickering. "Much to my satisfaction, what I saw in my own home, I saw in other homes as well," she said with a laugh. Siblings squabble often -- an average of seven to 12 times an hour -- and parental response influences how children learn to resolve problems, Lollis said. "I'm very interested in the positive side of fighting. We learn moral dilemmas in day-to-day living, that is what really forms who we are."

Lollis expected to find that parents relied more on "care" when dealing with their daughters and "justice" when confronting their sons, an assumption that has been supported by past field research. However, she discovered the child's gender did not influence the parent's reaction; rather, it was the gender of the parent that mattered.

In all of the families, the mother was the primary caregiver, although about half of the women worked outside of the home at least part time. Lollis said the study leads her to wonder if the more time a person spends with their children, the more they rely on "care" strategies because they have a better understanding of the overall relationship of the siblings. "The mothers had a higher tolerance for the fighting. Justice solves the problem quickly, while caring and working it out together takes longer," she said. "The findings raise an issue of whether children will eventually become like their parents, with grown-up girls concerned more with issues of care and grown-up boys with issues of justice."

For more information, contact Professor Susan Lollis, (519) 824-4120 Ext. 3003 or Lori Hunt, Communications and Public Affairs, (519) 824-4120 Ext. 3338.

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